Thursday, 3 March 2011

Overfishing and the unsustainable use of our oceans

On Monday 28th February, Nigel Baker, Lead Food Campaigner, led a fascinating discussion on overfishing. He started off by asking each member of the group to look down a list of common fish species and state whether they thought each one was currently overfished. He then compared our answers to recent data from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Some of the results were a surprise to us, for example Atlantic Cod stocks are apparently not so badly depleted, while some of the results confirmed what we knew, for instance that current fishing methods for tiger prawns are completely unsustainable.

Nigel then went on to draw our attention to a number of alarming facts around current fish stocks:

  • 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish are already gone

  • globally, fishing fleets are at least two to three times as large as needed to take present day catches of fish and other marine species

  • the majority of the UK population depend on only four species of fish – tuna, salmon, cod and haddock

  • the dangers associated with overfishing are shown in the example of the 1992 collapse of northern cod fisheries in Newfoundland resulting in at least 40,000 people losing their job and stocks of cod that have never returned

It was also mentioned that the profile of the current debate about overfishing has been raised by the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who has recently begun a campaign called the Big Fish Fight. In the series on Channel 4, he finds out that due to the current EU quota system, up to 20,000 tonnes of fish are thrown back dead into the North Sea every week, that is up to half of the catch for each boat is discarded.

It seems that there is reason to hope that the current system may change as the EU Fisheries Commissioner has just set out ideas for ending the practice of discarding fish, as set out in an article on the BBC website on the 1st March.

One solution to the problem of discard may be to adopt an ecologically friendly policy such as that used in Faroe Islands, an archipelago which has a population of 48,000 people and an economy which is heavily dependent on fishing. According to this more sustainable system, a quota is imposed in days rather than tonnes, and thereby avoids throwing excess fish back into the sea.

The Big Fish Fight programs also explore the problems associated with fishing on a commercial scale which uses techniques which catch all species in an area indiscriminately leading to the problem of by-catch. One example shown in the series is for tuna which is packaged by Tesco as being sourced in environmentally friendly ways, but which is shown to come from fishing boats which regularly catch sharks, tortoises and turtles in their large nets.

The discussion then went on to consider what we can do about this situation. One suggestion is that we should learn to eat a wider variety of fish, for example eating Mackerel, in order to save other species under threat. It was noted that the UK fish and chips industry is a significant driver in the UK's demand for this limited range of fish. Aldo told the group that at least one fish and chip shop in the area has started offering more sustainable fish on the menu since seeing the issue raised on TV, and suggested that we could all make a visit sometime. If you know of any other fish and chip shops locally that do this, please let us know!

One further issue that was raised in the discussion was the rising acidification of our oceans due to climate change, and how this is causing coral reefs to rapidly become bleached and jellyfish populations to increase. Unfortunately there was not time to discuss this topic in full, however eating jellyfish with chips was not felt to be the answer!

FoE has a linked campaigning group called Marinet who are campaigning for reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy. Please visit their website and support their campaign: and next time you eat fish, think about what your choice is doing to the oceans.

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